“Byron and Shelley: The History of a Friendship” : Review

byron and shelleyJust last night I finished may latest biography on the romantics, by John Buxton. This biography chronologically picks up where Ian Gilmour’s Byron & Shelley: The Making of the Poets, leaves off, though Buxton’s is written a few decades before Gilmour’s (1968). The difference between the two biographies is drastic. Where Gilmour digs in and gives the reader a real and eye-opening sense of Byron and Shelley’s milieu, Buxton’s tone comes from a completely different era — decorous with a hint of the Victorian sensibility that slips, every now and then, into an almost starry-eyed and exculpatory praise for his subjects.

I almost didn’t make it through the book.

The biggest problem I had with Buxton as that he wrote the book without offering a sense of personality — of his subjects, the places where they lived, friends, acquaintances, etc. The book feels like a checklist of events. They did this, at this time, at this place, wrote this, discussed this, and then this happened, & etc. I never got the feeling that I was in the story. (Gilmour is still the best I’ve read so far).  No discussion of culture or politics, which is especially relevant to Shelley.

I read Amy Lowell’s biography of Keats, many years ago, and the most salient aspect I remember is her fine-grained analysis of Keats’s growth as a poet (which apparently takes another poet to accomplish). That’s something that none of the biographies (I’ve read so far) come close to accomplishing. They write about the poets’ lives — what they did, where they were, who they met — but are bizarrely silent on the one subject which, after all, is the only reason we read about them — their poetry. Lowell is the only biographer, I’ve read so far, that pulls it off (though I’ll soon be reading more). Vendler, as far as I know, doesn’t write biographies (though I’m not a big fan of her ‘Vendlerization’ of poets and their poetry).

Buxton tells us repeatedly that Shelley and Byron were friends and deeply influenced each others poetry, but never once demonstrates how.  In fact, Buxton waits until the death of Byron, within 10 pages of the end of his book, to suddenly take us on a whirlwind summation of their poems. We end up with paragraphs like this:

Manfred, therefore begun while Shelley was with him, and continued after Monk Lewis had translated Goethe’s Faust to him, denotes the state in his poetic development which Byron had then reached: he had been made aware by Shelley of new possibilities of human experience, but his own self-knowledge had brought him to realize, however regretfully, that they were not for him. In form also the play is Shelleyan, rather than Aeschylean, lyrical drama, and owes nothing to Byron’s practical experience of the theatre. It is a precursor of Prometheus Unbound, where, in turn, Shelley is often indebted to Byron; but the relation between the two works is too complex for brief discussion. [p. 263]

Too complex? Yeah, I guess so, especially if the author waits until the last ten pages of a 268 pages book to do it. But that brings up another tone that annoyed me. There’s too much of the hoity-toity in Buxton’s writing; it smacks of arrogance. One gets the sense that his intended readers are already Byron & Shelley cognoscenti. He drops individuals into the narrative without the least effort (or minimal) to explain who they are or their relationship to the poets. He presumes we know who these personalities are. I mean, come on, does he really have to explain who Scrope Davies is? Seriously? He may briefly explain them once, only to reintroduce them a hundred pages later without a shred of reminding: Does he really have to explain who they are again? Buxton also doesn’t bother translating anything. Obviously, his Oxford educated readership spoke Latin, Greek, Italian, German and French; and if you or I can’t read classical Greek, then he can’t be bothered to condescend. So, for instance, he’ll write:

Byron was very kind, she told Maria Gisborne in writing to tell her that they would soon meet in England. ‘He promises that I shall make my journey at ease, which on Percy’s account I am glad of.’ But she could not leave until after Marianne Hunt’s confinement, which Dr. Vacca had predicted might be fatal to her. After eleven months in the country this stupid and commonplace woman could not speak a word of Italian, and need Mary’s help. [p. 249]

Never mind that Hunt’s wife probably didn’t want to be there, had four children to take care of (while the men were off riding, shooting, sailing, and being altogether lost in their self-absorbed literary vanities); and seemingly suffered the confinement of a near fatal illness. Buxton has no sympathy (and can’t be bothered with that kind of insight). Didn’t she know she was in the presence of geniuses? The stupid and commonplace woman should have learned Italian by now — and the same goes for the readers of his biography (one guesses). Worse yet, Buxton relates that Hunt’s children marred Lord Byron’s furniture and walls with dirty fingers.

The horror.

Any of the historical personalities that dared criticize Shelley or Byron are summarily dispatched by Buxton, while the author breezes over (if mentioning them at all) any of the poets’ more controversial behaviors. (We barely get a hint of Byron’s sexual proclivities.) On the other hand, those who appeared to treat Byron and Shelley with due deference, loyalty and respect, like Edward Trelawny, are treated with a tolerable sufferance by Buxton. The author  repeatedly praises Shelley’s gentlemanly, aristocratic and generous behavior, and encourages us to bask in the glow of Byron’s good humor, brilliance and masculine appeal.

So, would I recommend the book? Probably not. It’s either a victim of its author or its time. (I think the former.)  The lives of Byron and Shelley, their influence on one another and the era’s obsession with the two poets, await a better biographer.

Scott Donaldson’s biography of Edwin Arlington Robinson is next.

up in Vermont : February 1 2015

5 responses

  1. “After eleven months in the country this stupid and commonplace woman could not speak a word of Italian, and needed Mary’s help.”

    Yes, at moments like these the author’s “issues” loom larger than anyone else’s he might write about. Hell, I’m a tobacco-chewing Huey Long redneck and can be more subtle than that. You were patient to finish this book. Written in 1968, it sounds like an unearthed time capsule of patrician assumption at its worst.

    • Yeah, I picked it up at a used bookstore (an old barn). There’s probably a reason this book is “hard to find”. Prob’ly best if it stays that way. And if you’re a Huey Long Redneck, your redneck bona fides trump mine. I grew up in bible-belt country.

  2. I admire your patience in reading such a book. Let’s applaud the effort of the author to deal with a distant subject. It’s neat that two great writers were such friends while being very different people. By the way, one of my favorite poems is by Shelley. Lines Written in the Hills (I know it’s not the correct title) has a passage of poetry that seems to be one of the best I have ever read in English. Keep up your difficult work up there.

  3. What books do you recommend on Bryon and Shelly? I’m finding myself increasingly interested in the Romantic Era poets, and I’m curious what books there are on the subject.

    • I’ve only read two books on Byron and Shelley, the two I recently reviewed. Beyond that, your best bet is to simply search Amazon. See what other readers have said? Of the books I’ve read though, Ian Gilmour’s was hands-down the best.

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